SERMON TEXT - Blessed are the Merciful
We are just two weeks away from remembrance Sunday and so I thought it might be of value to share the following World War II story with you:
Charles Brown a B-17 pilot in the US army, was a 21-year-old West Virginia farm boy on his first combat mission. His bomber had been quite seriously damaged as he and his crew encountered a swarm of Nazi air-planes as they flew in the skies above Germany dropping bombs on a German city below. Half the crew in the plane were wounded and the tail gunner had been killed. They had lost the ability to defend themselves.
Just then a German fighter plane flew up behind them, and At that moment, Charles Brown thought this was the end for him and his crew.
But what happened next was completely unexpected. The German didn’t pull the trigger. Instead, a few moments later the German plane drew up close beside them just three feet from their wing-tip, he nodded and smiled at Charles Brown and his co-pilot Spencer Luke.
Bob Jones writes that what then unfolded was one of the most remarkable acts of mercy recorded during the second world war. Bob Jones writes that “...the German ace pilot Hanz Stigler had every reason to shoot down the American B-17 bomber in front of him. Enemy forces had already killed his brother early in the war and were now bombing German cities. Not only that, if Stigler took down this particular bomber...” due to his record in the air, he would have secured the German equivalent of the Medal of Honour or the Victoria Cross.
In the moments before this incident, as Stigler had prepared to squeeze the trigger, he had thought that it was strange that the bomber wasn't firing back at him. And so, flying a little closer, it became evident that the gunner was dead and most of the crew clearly wounded. The plane had been riddled with bullets, and it was clearly struggling to stay aloft. In that moment, Stigler knew in his heart that if he pulled that trigger, he would be killing the crew in cold blood.
Instead, he opted to do the merciful thing. Stigler signaled to the shocked American pilot and he duly escorted the bomber to prevent it being targeted by anti-aircraft fire, until they reached the North Sea, where he broke off and saluted his adversaries one last time. (Story taken from Bob Jones, quoted from Revwords.com)
At the end of recounting this story, Bob Jones quotes Shannon French: “There is something worse than death, and one of those things is to completely lose your humanity”. Hanz Stigler could have lost his humanity that day, but instead, he chose to act with mercy.
In the 5th Beatitude in Matthew 5:7 we read “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy”.
The first thing this beatitude reveals is the centrality of the value of mercy in the teachings of Jesus.
In John’s Gospel Jesus is reported to say, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father” John 14:9. And in Colossians 1:15, Paul writes of Jesus when he says “he is the invisible image of the invisible God”. If there is one thing that Jesus’ life reveals about God is that God is mercy.
It is perhaps one of the key things that distinguished Jesus from the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law in his own day. Theirs was a religion that had grown rigid and uncompromising in their obsession with following rules that in the process had become decidedly unmerciful and un-compassionate towards anyone they regarded as failing to live in accordance with God’s requirements. They had forgotten that many of the laws they were following were meant to point them in the direction of mercy. But instead their religiosity had made them rigid and hard hearted.
By contrast, mercy was a central value in the way Jesus treated other people, whether it was prioritising the healing of a crippled man on the Sabbath, or saving the life of a women who had been caught in adultery, or responding to the request of the enemy Roman Centurion to heal his servant. It was in fact Jesus’ mercy towards sinners that made him so offensive to many of the law abiding Jews of Jesus day, and that became a large part of the reason for his eventual torture and execution. In Matthew 12:9-14 we read that it was as a direct result of Jesus act of mercy towards a man with a crippled hand, whom he heals on the Holy Day of the Sabbath, that the Pharisees began to plot against him, discussing how to destroy him.
The religion of the Pharisees had led to a loss of their humanity. Not only did their religion leave them with no mercy or compassion towards the man with the crippled hand, it led them to plotting to destroy the life of the one who had acted with mercy. Jesus act of prioritising mercy above the Sabbath law was such an offense to them that they were willing to break another of the commandments: Thou Shalt not murder.
It is a good question: Does our religiosity make us more merciful towards others? Or does it leave us less merciful? If our religion leaves us less merciful, then our religion has become more like the religion of the Pharisees and less like the religion of Jesus.
Blessed are the merciful…. Why? Because according to Jesus when we are merciful, we are living in alignment with the very nature of God whose Name is Mercy.
But what are we to make of the second half of the beatitude? Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy? Is it suggesting that if you don’t show mercy to others, God won’t show mercy to you?
There are many who might interpret it in that way. But the example of the apostle Paul suggests otherwise.
The Apostle Paul was utterly convinced that God’s love and mercy towards us, was and is, not dependent on our mercy towards others. Why was he so convinced of this? Because it was his own experience.
According to the book of Acts, when he was still known by the name of Saul, we read that he was on his way to brutally oppress and murder the followers of Jesus in Damascus. He was in effect what we would call today a religious extremist. He was engaged in acts of religious violence and terror. He had already stood at a distance watching over the brutal stoning of Stephen and giving his approval.
And now he was on his way to Damascus to do the same to others. There is no other way around it but to admit that Paul had lived as a religious fanatic. If he had had access to bombs as religious extremists do today, you can be sure that the apostle Paul before his conversion, would have been planting bombs and blowing Christians up.
And yet Divine mercy was shown to him on the road to Damascus. A light shone upon him and a voice was heard “Saul Saul, why do you persecute me.” And in that moment, he discovered and experienced the grace of God; that God is merciful towards us even when we are not merciful towards others. And in this experience of Divine Mercy expressed towards him, Paul changed from being a violent religious extremist to becoming a religious extremist of another kind… he became an apostle of grace, of God’s underserved kindness and love. For Paul, God’s mercy is not dependent on our mercy. Rather, Paul would have suggested that we are only capable of acts of mercy, love and compassion because God has first acted mercifully towards us.
What then might it mean to say: Blessed are the merciful, they will be shown mercy?
I have a sense that what Jesus is referring to here is not primarily about God’s mercy towards us, but rather about our human relationships with others. If we treat others with mercy and compassion, we are far more likely to have mercy and compassion reflected back towards us.
This is true to some extent even of snakes, tigers and crocodiles. Snakes tigers and crocodiles will always be dangerous. But if you are aggressive towards them, they will become even more dangerous and aggressive back. But if you treat them mercifully and compassionately, even while keeping proper distance protecting yourself from them, their level of danger will be drastically reduced. Over time a degree of rapport might even develop.
There are some people whose level of consciousness is not very much higher than a snake, a tiger or a crocodile. They are best treated like dangerous animals. You might want to keep a little distance. You might want to put various levels of protection in place. But if you treat them with a level of care and respect and even mercy, while they might still be a danger and still pose a threat, they are are likely to be less of a danger than they would be if dealt with with unnecessary aggression.
If you wish to receive mercy from others, you are far more likely to receive it if you are merciful towards them. If you are unmerciful to others, unless they have been touched in some profound way by the mercy and grace of God, it is rather likely that they will be unmerciful to you in return.
In closing, I wonder, how that unexpected experience of receiving mercy from a Nazi German pilot changed Charles Brown life, and that of his co-pilot Spencer Luke that day? I wonder if it changed their perspective on the war in some way? I wonder what it must have been like for them, the next time they flew off on a mission to bomb another German town or city? I wonder if on that day they may have grown a little more conscious of the common humanity of their German enemies? I wonder, after that incident, if they were more likely to show mercy to an enemy themselves than they may have been before?
What I do know, is that after an extensive search by Charles Brown, the two pilots eventually met each other in person again 50 years later. Hanz Stigler was now living in Canada. As a show of thanks, Charles Brown made Hanz Stigler the guest of honour at a reunion he had planned with his crewmen. At the event, they showed Stigler a video of their children and grandchildren, people who would not have lived were it not for his act of mercy.
For the next 18 years, between 1990 and 2008 Charles Brown and Franz Stigler became close friends and remained so until Stigler's death in March 2008. Brown died only a few months later, in November of the same year.
“Blessed are the merciful”, says Jesus, “They will be shown mercy”.
SERMON TEXT: Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, they will be satisfied. Matt 5:6
In 1980, Bruce Springsteen came out with a hit song called “Hungry Heart”. The chorus section is one I’m sure you will recognise:
Everybody's got a hungry heart
Everybody's got a hungry heart
Lay down your money and you play your part
Everybody's got a hungry heart
It is one of those songs that has become an all-time great, one that you are likely to hear on the radio on quite a regular basis. What makes it so popular? It definitely has a catchy tune, but you need more than a catchy tune to give a song enduring value.
The reason it is popular I believe is it that it also speaks of a fairly universal human experience: We all have hungry hearts. What are you hungry for… what does your heart reach out for? What entices your heart?
I must confess that I’m one of those people who seldom knows the lyrics to a whole song… just the chorus will do… la la la la la la la Everybodies got a hungry heart….
And so I was interested this week to read the rest of the lyrics of the song: It is about a man who has a wife and kids in the city of Baltimore. He leaves them behind on a road trip and he never goes back. He takes a wrong turn and falls in love with someone he meets in a bar. It doesn’t work out but instead everything they had ends up ripped apart and so he ends up back in Kingstown, alone with a hungry heart… perhaps one might imagine, more alone, empty and hungry than before.
Everybody's got a hungry heart
Everybody's got a hungry heart
Lay down your money and you play your part
Everybody's got a hungry heart
Bruce Springsteen’s song suggests that not everything we hunger and thirst after necessarily leads to satisfaction. Our hungry hearts can sometimes lead us astray. Sometimes our hungry hearts can leave us feeling even more broken and even more empty than before.
The prophet Isaiah knew the truth of this: “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Our text from Matthew 5:6 today is also about a hungry heart and reads: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, they will be satisfied.”
In doing so it suggests that there is another way; another way of living and being in the world that does bring satisfaction. The word that the NIV version uses is righteousness. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
The Greek word dikaiosuné (dik-ah-yos-oo'-nay) comes from the word dikaios (dik'-ah-yos) which can mean to be upright, just/fair, equitable. It comes from the root word díkē, which means judicial approval or a verdict of approval. Ultimately it means to be in right relationship with God, to be at-one with God, to live a life in harmony with the Divine Life. But what exactly does that mean?
In Matthew’s Gospel, the word righteousness is in fact a disputed word. It means different things to different people. Part of the purpose of Matthew’s Gospel is to clarify the true meaning of the term righteousness, the true meaning of living at One with God of what it means to live a life in harmony with God.
The first person to be referred to as righteous in Matthew's Gospel is Joseph, the future husband of Mary. In Joseph’s case, his righteousness seems to hang in the balance. Is it just like an outward pasted on righteousness that has more to do with social respectability, or is his righteousness something deeper? Is he going to quietly call things off with Mary so that he saves his own face and reputation, or will he remain faithful to her and stick with her despite the moral questions that will be thrown in their direction? In Joseph’s case, his true righteousness is revealed in his willingness to stick by Mary, to be faithful to her and to love her, and in doing so to risk having society question his moral integrity in doing so. True righteousness, living a life in harmony with God’s life, is about doing the right thing no matter the consequences. It is therefore not concerned with social respectability and what others may think of you.
The second place we encounter the word righteousness is when Jesus comes to be baptised by John in the Jordan. John tells Jesus that it should be the other way around. Jesus should be baptising him. But Jesus says, let it be so for now so that all righteousness can be fulfilled. In this context, true righteousness, being at one with God and living in harmony with God is about willing to put away pride. It is about being willing to humble oneself before another and not insist on one’s own importance. If Jesus had insisted on his own importance, he would never have let John baptise him.
A little further on in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus suggests that the righteousness of his followers needs to surpass the righteousness of the Pharisees. What could that mean? To first century Jews, the Pharisees were the most righteous people of all? They kept all the minute details of the law? What could it mean that followers of Jesus need to exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees? Later on, in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus accuses them of self-righteousness instead of real and true righteousness. Their righteousness consists of public displays of righteousness. Dressing up and making great displays of their generosity and their prayers so that others might be impressed by them. Jesus accuses them of being like white-washed tomb stones. Clean on the outside, but full of all sorts of hatred, anger, lust and scheming on the inside. Jesus also accuses them of being nit-picking about paying a tithe of their herbs and spices from their kitchens to the Temple, but failing to act with mercy and compassion towards fellow human beings.
The truly righteous, those whose lives are in harmony with God, according to Matthew’s Jesus in the sermon on the mount, are those who are upright in secret when nobody can see. They’re not in it for egotistical reasons to boost themselves in the estimation of others. Rather they have given up the self, they are happy to quietly get on doing the right, good, merciful and compassionate thing without anyone knowing – no ego, no self. This is seen most especially in Matthew’s Gospel the parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25. The parable is about the righteous and the unrighteous. In it, Jesus describes the sheep as the righteous, who are separated from the goats who are labelled as the unrighteous. What does righteousness look like in the parable? It looks like this:
Visiting with mercy and compassion, those in prison. Giving a cup of water to someone who is thirsty and food to those who are hungry. It is about reaching out to welcome and receive a stranger. It is about helping to provide clothes to those who do not have.
But even more than that, in the parable, those who are labelled as the righteous are not even conscious of being righteous. Their acts of mercy and compassion have not been calculated to impress others or done so that they feel superior to others, but come from hearts overflowing with love, compassion and mercy towards others, especially to those in need. “They will say” says Jesus, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you? When did we see you thirsty and give you a drink? When did we see you a stranger and make you welcome, lacking clothes and clothe you? When did we find you sick or in prison? And the King will answer: “In truth I tell you, in so far as you did this to one of the least of these, you did it to me.”
And so true righteousness is forgetful of the self. No thought of patting oneself on the back with how good one has been. As we read in Matthew 5 the truly righteous give with the right hand, and not even the left hand knows that they are doing so. And so, in seeking first, God’s Kingdom and God’s righteousness (as we read in Matthew 6:33) the truly righteous have emptied themselves of all but love. To be righteous is to live in a state of harmony and one-ness with God and to become channels of that Divine Love which according to Matthew 5 constantly pours itself out on good and evil alike. Love given to all without without question or discrimination.
And according to Matthew’s Gospel, this true righteousness of a life lived in harmony and in Oneness with the Divine Love is ultimately seen in Jesus who is willing to pour out his own life in love as a ransom for many as he is crucified. In giving away his own life so freely, as he reveals the full extent of Divine Life expressed through him, he ransom’s us from the slavery of our own self-concern and selfishness. As we sang in that hymn a week or two ago “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.” That is why in John’s Gospel Jesus is called the Bread of Life. He has become the Bread of Life for us, because his life points us in the direction of true satisfaction, becoming channels of love, blessing, mercy and compassion towards others.
In Acts 20:35 we read of one of the sayings of Jesus that never made it into the four Gospels: “It is more blessed to give than receive”. I think many will be able to identify that some of their most satisfying moments in life have come in seeing the joy or the gratitude in some-one else's face. Such moments are little reminders of the nature of true righteousness, when we have become channels of love and blessing to others it is one of the most satisfying things in the world. A little bit like that Dr at the Newcastle United game about a week ago. When he ran over to help one of the fans in the stands who was having a heart-attack, he responded spontaneously and freely. He wasn’t asking if he would receive a reward of any kind. And when the fans in the stands afterwards chanted “hero, hero, hero”, he said it was the best feeling he had ever had. In that action, he had unknowingly done an un-calculated act of true righteousness, in that moment, his life had expressed itself in harmony and in one-ness with Divine Love, and the crowds could see it and responded accordingly.
Jesus, the truly righteous one, who has become the bread of life for us tells us: Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Not the phony pasted on righteousness. Not the righteousness that seeks a reward. Not the righteousness that is constantly calculating who is deserving and who isn’t, but the righteousness that is a flowing of love, compassion and mercy from the heart. They will be satisfied says Jesus. In contrast, a life lived for self-gratification, self-promotion, self-aggrandizement, self-interest is like a great empty hole that will never be filled.
Blaise Pascal once wrote: “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every person, and it can never be filled by any created thing. It can only be filled by God.”
Jesus says: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for a life lived in harmony with God’s Divine Love: they will be satisfied.”
Blessed are the Gentle – Sermon Text
Today as we come to explore the third beatitude, the first observation I would like to make is that the phrase “Blessed are the meek, they will inherit the earth” is almost a direct quotation from Psalm 37:11. The only thing that is missing is the phrase “Blessed are…”
In Psalm 37:11 it is phrased as follows: “The meek will inherit the land and enjoy peace and prosperity.”
The essence of Psalm 37 is a warning and a caution not to fret when you see unjust, wicked or untrustworthy people prospering. The opening verses of Psalm 37 sets the tone for the whole psalm.
1 Do not fret because of those who are evil
or be envious of those who do wrong;
The Psalm goes on in verse 3:
3 Trust in the Lord and do good;
dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture.
And then Verses 10 and 11 in a way form something of a punchline for the entire Psalm.
10 A little while, and the wicked will be no more;
though you look for them, they will not be found.
11 But the meek will inherit the land/earth
and enjoy peace and prosperity.
And so in the context of Psalm 37, the meaning of ‘meekness’ is really about trusting God, the Great Wisdom that holds us. It is about not fretting, or giving in to anger when you see the unjust, the unrighteous or the devious prospering.
To be ‘meek’ according to Psalm 37 is to trust that there is a Higher Wisdom at work. It is to trust that in God’s time and in God’s way, God’s justice and ultimate Goodness will somehow prevail; that God’s universe is not chaotic or ultimately unjust but rather that the God who is Love and Goodness, is also Truth and Light and that perfect justice ultimately rules the world, even though we may not always be able to see it or perceive it clearly.
How much energy do we burn up and expend bemoaning the sins, faults and the wickedness of others, especially those in positions of authority and power. The meek according to Psalm 37 have left all those cares and concerns into the hands into the Divine, Cosmic Wisdom and having done so they can direct their energies into more constructive places, lighting candles instead of cursing the darkness.
“Blessed are the meek, they will inherit the earth”... “Blessed are those who trust in the higher Divine wisdom and justice, they will be enabled to live on earth with greater inner freedom.”
A second observation I would like to make, is that the English word ‘meek’ is in fact no longer the most helpful translation. I read one commentary that suggested that the meaning of the English word ‘meek’ has changed over the centuries since it was first used by the early English Reformers when translating the Bible into English.
Whereas the original meaning of ‘meek’ would have been – being humble, patient and gentle, it has today come more and more to mean to be submissive and easily imposed upon, and therefore as being weak.
But the original Greek word praus in our text would have been far closer to the idea of being gentle and humble.
Quite a number of modern translations of Matthew 5:5 therefore use the word gentle.
“Blessed are the gentle, they will inherit the earth”
What is interesting is that in most other places in the New Testament where the Greek word Praus is used, it is translated as gentle and on some occasions as humble. In fact, I found it quite astonishing how often the word gentle is used through-out the New Testament. The value of gentleness is dotted all across the New Testament.
Phil 4:5 Let you gentleness be known to all
Titus 3:2 urges Christians “...To speak evil of no one... [but] to be gentle, and courteous toward all people.”
2 Timothy 2:24-26 tells us that an elder in the Church must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone...correcting his opponents with gentleness.
In Galatians 6:1 Paul writes of restoring others who have sinned in a spirit of gentleness
It seems that in the New Testament, gentleness is consistently described as being a key attribute of Christian conduct and behaviour. In Matthew 11 Jesus even describes himself as gentle.
“Come unto me, all you that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble of heart: and you shall find rest for your souls.” Matthew 11:28
And as Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, quoting from Zachariah, Matthew 21:4-5, Jesus is described as gentle and riding on a donkey. He is gentle as he welcomes children and blesses them. He is gentle as he responds to the woman caught in adultery as well as the women who anoints his feet. He reaches out and touches with gentleness the man with leprosy.
But as we read the Gospels in all their fullness we see that the gentleness of Jesus is anything but weak. There is a strength in Jesus that enables him to stand his ground and even confront religious authorities whose religiosity have made them hard-hearted and uncaring. There is a strength in Jesus as he walks resolutely to Jerusalem even though he knows he is walking to his death. The gentleness of Jesus is born of an inner strength, not from weakness.
I found a quote online from Leo Rosten. He writes:
“I learned that it is the weak who are cruel, and that gentleness is to be expected only from the strong.”
And Andy Mort, who describes himself as a Coach for Gentle Rebels writes:
“...There is nothing strong about the person who is quick to lose temper and resort to aggression and violence in their spirit, words, and action. This is anything but strength, it is in fact a display of profound weakness...”
In contrast, those who are gentle are strong and full of self-control. In fact without the inner strength of self-control, there would be no true gentleness at all.
And so another Christian writer, Gayle Erwin writes that “Gentleness is not apathy but is an aggressive expression of how we view people. We see people as so valuable that we deal with them in gentleness...”
Blessed are the gentle, says Jesus, they will inherit the earth.
Thirdly, I would like to briefly wrestle with this question of the meek inheriting the earth. It has never quite made sense to me. In probably over three thousand years or more since Psalm 37 stated that the meek will inherit the land, it would seem that our world is still structured in a way that benefits the aggressive, the greedy, the pushers and the exploiters?
What could it mean then that the gentle will inherit the earth? As I was chewing on this question during the week, it struck me that in fact there is in fact very profound truth within it that we all need to hear.
If our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren are going to inherit the earth from us, then we are all going to need to learn to walk more gently upon it. Unless we all learn to live more gently on the earth, there is not going to be much left to inherit. In Psalm 37, the wicked are described as those who borrow from others and do not repay. Our current way of life is living off resources borrowed from future generations, our children and grand-children and great grand-children. Has the time perhaps come for us to begin to repay what we have borrowed? And if we had to all use our imaginations what might life begin to look like? What would need to change in our way of life if we were to all to learn to live with more gentleness on the earth?
It was wonderful to hear Prince William this week questioning those billionaires who are jetting off on private trips into space. He said the time has come for us to stop trying to find other places to live in outer space, but rather to use our resources to instead fix this world. Everyone needs to learn to live with greater gentleness, even our millionaires and billionaires.
And what might it mean to begin to live more gently on the earth? It doesn’t necessarily mean gluing ourselves to motorways… it could be as simple as as considering how we spend our money, what we spend it on and how much we’re willing to waste. In what way are you and I being asked to become gentle revolutionaries.
Blessed are the gentle, says Jesus, they will inherit the earth.
I would like to close with a brief story that my father shared with me that encapsulates something of the both the strength and the power of gentleness:
At one of the theological colleges in England where my father taught, the principal of the college, a minister, reflected on the meaning of the phrase “the wrath of the Lamb”. You might recognise the phrase from our preaching series on Revelation. It is found in Rev 6:16.
In reflecting on this phrase: “the wrath of the lamb”, the minster told of how he had got home from work one day, tired, withdrawn and irritable. And in this state of unpleasant irritability, he had been abrupt and even rude to his little 4 year old daughter who had come over to spend time with him as he arrived home.
After having dealt with her rather abruptly and rudely, he got up and went off to his study to be by himself. A few minutes later, he heard a little knock on the door. It was his daughter. As she opened the door and stood at a distance in the doorway, she simply said: “I love you daddy!”
He said in that moment, through the innocence and gentleness of his four year-old daughter, he had come to understand what the book of Revelations means when it speaks of “the wrath of the lamb”.
“I love you daddy!” she had said. And in that moment, he was pierced to the heart.
There is power in gentleness. In Proverbs 15:1 we read “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”
“Blessed are the gentle”, says Jesus, “they shall inherit the earth”.
Matthew 5:4 Blessed are those who mourn. They will be comforted.
Today we come to reflect on the second beatitude, and as we do so, and as we come to wrestle with what sounds like an oxymoron, that there is a blessing and a comfort to be found in mourning and grief, I recognise that as we reflect on this verse today, we all find ourselves standing on holy ground… sacred ground… It is best that we tread with great caution and with great care lest we find ourselves insensitively stomping around on one-another’s broken hearts, and walking arrogantly or carelessly through each others pools of tears.
In preparing for today’s sermon, as I normally do, I spent a bit of time reading through other people’s reflections. One pastor wrote of how he had preached on this verse at a major conference. And after the session was over and people were mingling and chatting, one delegate came over to him and asked him “Have you ever suffered? Have you ever lost someone? Have you ever really mourned?”. The pastor paused a moment to think and found himself having to admit that he hadn’t. “I thought so,” was the response of the person who had come up to speak to him.
In this beatitude of Jesus, we are faced with a paradox: Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. The great danger of a preacher, in trying to find a fresh, clever, interesting and novel perspective on these words is that one might end up speaking without knowledge and spouting forth something trite and superficial.
And so today, I feel indeed that I walk where angels fear to tread, because angels might be more deeply aware than I of the pools of tears that sit beside those who will be listening to this sermon today.
Blessed are those who mourn. They will be comforted.
What could these words mean? What truth is hidden within the paradox?
Today, rather than trying to come up with some clever and fresh perspective on what these words might mean, I thought it might be better to reflect on two stories of grief and hopefully allow those stories to shed light on the possible meaning of our text today.
The first story is one that I think I have told before in Dromore, perhaps in the first few months of arriving. It is the story of a colleague in the ministry in South Africa. We were serving together in a large church on the east of Johannesburg. He told how some years earlier his father had passed away. Being a minister, his family looked to him for direction, and very soon he got into practical mode as he made arrangements for the funeral which he ended up conducting the himself. He said it was so busy and intense at the time that he never had the opportunity to grieve his father’s passing. He was so busy trying to be a minister to his family, trying to provide a container for his own families grief that he never really had the opportunity himself to just sit down and cry and to feel personally for himself the sense of pain and loss of his fathers passing.
Under the circumstances trying his best to holds things together for his family, he had put a lid on his grief. In effect, he had forced himself to just suck it up and keep going.
He went on to tell how a few years later, on one ordinary Sunday morning, as he mounted the stairs up into the pulpit, ready to lead a service or worship as he did every Sunday, just as he was about to start the service, he found himself suddenly overcome and overwhelmed by a flood of tears that he had absolutely no control over. Up there in the pulpit, in front of the whole congregation, he found himself weeping and sobbing uncontrollably for no apparent reason.
It was with a sense of embarrassment that he had to leave the pulpit and leave the confused and obviously concerned congregation just sitting there wondering what was happening. He went into to the vestry where for the next 15 to twenty minutes the tears just flowed as he continued to sob and weep uncontrollably.
In reflecting on it, he said he hadn’t realised how much grief he had been carrying inside since his father’s passing. And he hadn’t realised how emotional heavy that grief had been. All he knew was as the grief welled up and as he sobbed and sobbed and sobbed uncontrollably on that Sunday morning, when he should have been leading his congregation in worship, something of the great weight and burden of that grief that he had been carrying for so long slowly began to lift from that day. It wasn’t that the grief suddenly now vanished, but that perhaps the beginning of a process of grieving had begun.
In out text, the Greek word for mourn, comes from the Greek word penthéō which means to "mourn over a death" and refers to "manifested grief" – a grief so severe it takes possession of a person and cannot be hid.
Is it possible that our verse today could mean something as follows: Blessed are those who cannot hide their grief any longer they will find relief from the great burden they have been carrying”.
On that day, that colleague found could not hide his grief any longer. He could not keep the lid on it any longer. And from that moment, his journey through grief had begun.
When I was still in training before I was ordained, I went with a group of other trainee ministers and spent the day at a hospice where a hospice nurse spoke to us about the grieving process and the work they do in the hospice, working with both those who were dying and their families. I will always remember her description of grief. She said grief is like digging through a mountain with a teaspoon.
A second story I would like to share is of a women that Wendy and I met while we were living and working at a retreat centre about an hour north of Johannesburg. Her name was Margie, and she had come to lead a retreat on the spiritual benefits of walking… walking in silence… walking alone… and in the process of walking, finding space to get in touch with and to work through the jumble of thoughts and emotions that we often carry with us but that we are not always aware of.
The weekend made a big impact on me. But it was not so much the retreat itself that made the impact, but rather it was Margie. There was a transparency about her, and a gentleness and a care and a love that was immediately evident. She seemed to possess an ability to see into a person, to see their vulnerabilties and their weaknesses and as she spoke with them, to hold them in a loving and caring presence.
Margie also seemed to have an ability to be very easily and quickly moved to tears. As she was moved by the presence and vulnerability of others during the course of conversation, she did not try and hold back, as tears would well up in her eyes. It was clearly an expression of the tenderness and the love she was experiencing that moment as she saw into the person who was standing before her and as she was draw in close to them.
At one point she apologised for the tears. Or perhaps it was not so much an apology as an explanation for she was clearly not embarrassed by the tears as many of us are. She told a little bit of her own story… how 30 or 40 years earlier her teenage son, aged about 18 years old, had taken his own life and how in that moment her life and her heart had shattered into a million and one little pieces. Hers had been a long and arduous journey through grief. But the long term effect of that grief was that it had made her very sensitive to and tender towards the pain of others. In a word, it had caused a deep and tender love to grow within her towards other people.
The death of her teenage son had shattered her heart into a million pieces, but in the end it was not a breaking down of her heart, it turned out in the end to be a breaking open of her heart in a soft, gentle and tender love for everyone who crossed her path.
Although she still grieved the loss of her son, she said her tears were no longer so much tears of sadness, but rather tears of love.
And I wonder if that is perhaps the answer to the paradox of Jesus teaching: Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Why is it a blessing to mourn? Where is the comfort in weeping and grieving? Perhaps the answer is that at the heart of grief is in fact the seed of love. You only grieve that which you love and where there is great love, there will surely also inevitably be great grief. And so grief is an expression of love.
The danger is that if you try and limit your grief, to contain it, hide it, or put a lid on it, the inevitable outcome is that you will also end up containing your love, hiding it, limiting it, putting a lid on it. To cut oneself off from grief is therefore unfortunately also to cut oneself off from love.
M Scott-Peck, the American Psychiatrist and Spiritual writer suggests that the source of all our psychological suffering is trying to avoid legitimate and unavoidable pain.
Is it possible that if we allow ourselves to grieve fully, to really feel the pain of our grief, that over time we might begin to experience our tears of sadness and grief being transformed into tears of tender love… or perhaps rather, that our tears of sadness that have always contained the seeds of love within them, have simply become the moisture that was needed in order for the seeds of love to grow.
The Greek word for comfort is the word parakaleó. Pará, means "from close-beside". Kaléō, means "to call or invite”. Putting those together one has the sense of being invited or called from close beside, "close-up and personal”. And in a way that is what it felt like being in the presence of Margie. Being in her presence was a feeling of being invited in, invited, called close beside, into her warm, open and tender presence and lovingkindness. Paradoxically, Margie had found comfort, an openess and a closeness to others through her grief.
Margie was not a professing Christian. Her journey had in the end taken her on a different spiritual path. But her life had become like a transparent window through which the light and love of God could shine. What Jesus is teaching in this verse is not Christian doctrine but rather a universal truth that expresses a universal human experience, open to all people.
Blessed are those who mourn, they will be comforted… blessed are those who allow themselves to grieve, they will enable others to come close and in turn become a soft and tender presence where others can feel themselves invited in also.
I’d like to end with two quotes. Firstly a quote by Marcel Proust. “We are healed of a suffering only by experiencing it to the full.”
And a quote from a contemporary spiritual teacher, Adyashanti: Grief un-resisted, becomes grace.
Exploring the Beatitudes - Week 2 - Blessed are the Poor in Spirit - Rev. Brian Moodie (HARVEST SUNDAY)
Prayer for Harvest Sunday
God of all goodness,
as we celebrate this season of Harvest,
We give thanks for the blessings of food, provision and nourishment.
Grow within us a harvest for the world.
Come sow a seed of hope within our souls,
that we might yield goodness, patience and kindness in abundance.
Sow a seed of peace in our lives,
that we might bear the fruits of forgiveness, compassion and righteousness.
Come sow a seed of love in our hearts Lord,
that others would reap the blessings of family, friendship and community.
May each seed of hope, peace and love grow within us into a harvest that can be feasted on by all. Amen.
Blessed are the Poor in Spirit - Matthew 5:3
Last week we began a new preaching series looking at the Beatitudes of Matthew 5:1-12. As part of the introduction, we examined the first two verses. Today we explore the first Beatitude: “Blessed are the Poor in Spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven”.
You might be wondering what on earth “Blessed are the Poor in Spirit” has to do with Harvest Sunday. I am hoping that by the end of this sermon we might see that one of the meanings of being Poor in Spirit is “to be grateful” to be grateful for the vast network of life and people on whom we depend. And so one of the possible interpretations of “Blessed are the poor in spirit” could be “Blessed are the grateful for they have found heaven in their hearts”. And on a day like today we indeed come most especially to express our gratitude for the blessings of the earth and for all we have received from the hand of God and the hard work of others.
Like each of the verses that follows, verse 3 begins with the Greek Markarioi, which can be translated a Happy, Rich, Blessed and Enviable.
I imagine that today, even though Harvest is still celebrated as a significant day of celebration, as modern people we have probably lost touch with how important Harvest was to our forebears. For our forebears who did not have the luxury of being able to import food from other parts of the world if they had a poor harvest, to reap a successful harvest was something to celebrate indeed. To have a poor harvest was not just a slight dent to one’s bank account. To have a poor harvest could have extremely serious consequences for the year ahead before the next harvest. To have a poor harvest could mean a period of extremely difficult months ahead where people would have to live on rations. But in extremely bad circumstances it could even lead to death, as the great potato famine of Ireland showed in the years 1845-1852. A poor harvest, especially if it happened a few years in a row would have been a matter of life and death.
And so to have a good harvest would have been to be happy, rich and blessed indeed, even if only for the 12 months that lay ahead.
And so the Greek word Makarioi invites us to recognize our own blessings at harvest.
Now in Luke 6 we find a different version of the beatitudes. Whereas Matthew 5 has 8 Blessings, Luke’s version has only four blessings, but followed by four woes.
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
when they exclude you and insult you
and reject your name as evil,
because of the Son of Man.
And then it is followed by four woes:
“But woe to you who are rich,
for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now,
for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.
Now some have suggested that Luke’s version and Matthew’s versions of the beatitudes would have been two different teaching occasions for two different audiences. But anyone who has read Luke’s Gospel in more detail will see that it is more complex than that. One of the themes that runs through the whole of Luke’s Gospel, as a thread woven across it’s pages or like a refrain that echoes and repeats across the whole story line, is the sense that a great turn-around of fortunes is coming. A time is coming suggests Luke’s Gospel when those who are poor now, will be rich in the Kingdom that is to come. And those who are rich now, and failed to share their wealth with others in this life, will find themselves demoted and dispossessed in the Kingdom that is to come. This was clearly a theme that was in the mind understanding of the writer of Luke’s Gospel. It was how he had come to understand and interpret the ministry and teachings of Jesus. He saw and interpreted the ministry of Jesus through the lense and the divide between those who were rich and poor. And Luke interpreted those terms in fairly stark economic terms. In Luke’s mind, Jesus revealed what some have called God’s preferential option for the poor, that God was most especially on the side of the poor. To have great wealth and not to share it according to Luke’s Gospel was to have chosen not to side with Jesus.
But in Matthew’s Gospel, while issues of economic wealth and poverty are clearly to be found, in Matthew’s version and interpretation of the Jesus story, he does not interpret the Jesus story or the teachings of Jesus in quite the same stark terms as Luke does.
Whereas Luke says: Blessed are the poor, Matthew says: Blessed are the poor in spirit.
What might it mean to be poor in spirit?
The Greek word translated as poor, quite literally is means one who crouches and cowers, like a beggar who relies totally on the gifts, goodwill and charity of others. It thus translates as poor but it’s truest meaning is to be destitute and as helpless as a beggar.
But Matthew’s version of the beatitudes is not referring to an economic poverty, rather Matthew’s version, unlike Luke’s version is referring to the poor in spirit.
Matthew’s version seems to be pointing to a quality of the heart, to those persons who are humble and devout. And what makes them humble and devout is that they recognize that they rely and depend on others. The poor in spirit in Matthew’s Gospel stand in contrast to those who think they are self-made men and women in the world, so successful that they think they do not need others any-more.
But the truth is, there is no self-made man or women in this world. We are all a lot more dependent than we realise. The CEO’s of Tesco or Sainsburies or BP (British Petroleum) are only successful because they depend on a supply chain of 100’s of 1000’s of others. What the last few weeks here in the UK have begun to reveal is that without 500 to 600 000 truck drivers, the CEO of Tesco or Sainsburies or BP are no longer quite as successful as they thought they were. They are no longer as financially independent as they thought they were. The truth is they are just as dependent as the rest of us, they have just lived under the illusion of being independent.
It is one of the truth’s of our human existence in this world. We are all part of a complex network of relationships and dependencies that in economic terms are normally spoken of as supply chains.
To be poor in spirit, is to recognise the truth of our existence. It is to recognise that no matter who we are, whether we are the street sweeper or the head of the Bank of England, we are all by nature dependent upon others. It is to recognize without others on whom we depend we would all be destitute beggars barely able to survive on our own.
To truly recognize that we are all dependent on others gives rise to gratitude. Thank you to the truck drivers. Without you we would have no stock on our shelves. We would have no food in our fridges, We would have no petrol in our cars. Thank you. May you who do all this for us, not have to work 60 hour weeks. May we not enjoy fully stocked shops at your expense, working longer hours than you should, with poor overnight facilities.
Thank you to the harvesters of our fruit and vegetables, those who come from other countries to do work that we don’t wish to do for ourselves. Thank you for your hard labour. May you who do these things for us that we can enjoy the luxury of eating strawberries and blueberries and all sorts of other fruit and vegetables, may you not be taken advantage of with low wages.
To be poor in spirit is to recognize the truth of our dependence on others. It is to recognise that no-one in this world is truly independent. And in response, it is to put our hands together in gratitude. It is to bow before others upon whom we rely and depend and express our gratitude. Thank you.
Even those who have chosen to move away from mainstream society and live by themselves on a small plot of land, being completely off the grid, even such people would not be able to live for more than a few months to realise that they too are in their own way completely at the mercy of the weather conditions to enable their little garden patches to grow.
To be poor in spirit is to realise that without others we would be completely destitute. Without people buying products on Amazon, without factories producing those things, truckers transporting those things, workers packing those things, Jeff Bezos would be destitute. He may not realise it, but he is just as dependent as the rest of us.
And so on Harvest Sunday, we come to put our palms together to express our gratitude. We come to recognize that we are all dependent on others. And that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take responsibility for ourselves as best we can. But it does mean that without others, none of us would be alive today. Without a mother and a father we wouldn’t have survived even a few hours, let alone weeks or months or years. Without the world’s supply chain and without the lowest paid workers within that supply chain, we would have no food on our tables. Without a stable climate and good soil, sunshine and rain in which plants can grow and food can be produced we could not live or survive.
And so for one Sunday in the year, we are reminded on Harvest, whether we realise it or not, we are all utterly dependent upon others as a destitute beggar… But only those who realise it are truly grateful, and only those who are truly grateful realise how truly blessed they are.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who live lives of true and humble gratitude, they have found the kingdom of heaven in their hearts. In discovering their own true nature as dependent beings, they have discovered just how truly lucky and how wondrously blessed they really are... how blessed we really are.
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